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Ohio Leaders Tried To Head Off COVID’s Racial Health Disparities. They Happened Anyway

Columbus Public Health commissioner Dr. Mysheika Roberts announcing the city's state of emergency last March.
Nick Evans
Columbus Public Health commissioner Dr. Mysheika Roberts announcing the city's state of emergency last March.

As Ohio began to tally up the number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from the pandemic last spring, a pattern became clear: Black and Brown residents were disproportionately affected by the virus.

Black leaders in Columbus sounded the alarm. Franklin County Public Health and Columbus City Council declared racism a public health crisis, a message echoed by Gov. Mike DeWine.

Council President Shannon Hardin launched an initiative to address disparities in coronavirus healthcare and recovery. “Coronavirus may not discriminate, but underlying health and economic disparities mean that the impacts of COVID-19 will hit neighborhoods like the Near East Side and Southfield the hardest," Hardin wrote in April.

Dr. Mysheika Roberts, director of Columbus Public Health, says that prediction came true.

“Here in the city of Columbus and in Franklin County, African Americans represent 29% of the population, yet they’ve represented 38% of those who are hospitalized from COVID-19,” Roberts says.

Roberts says there were a few reasons for that.

“They had more underlying chronic health conditions like diabetes, like hypertension, like lung disease that put them at increased risk of complications from COVID-19,” she says.

Plus, many were frontline employees, working with the public, unable to shelter in place and more likely to be exposed to the coronavirus.

And while city officials have been aware of the disparity for nearly a year, the numbers haven’t improved.

“Hospitalizations have gone down throughout our county and throughout our state, but we still see minorities and particularly African Americans being disproportionately impacted by this virus and requiring hospitalizations,” Roberts says.

Roberts says one front where Columbus is excelling is the equity of vaccine distribution.

“We’re doing a lot better than some people think we’re doing or anticipated we’d be doing,” she says.

Columbus Public Health has provided 55,000 vaccines so far, and 17% have gone to African Americans.

“I think that’s really good. We’re just one vaccine provider throughout the city of Columbus, and there are many other vaccine providers,” she says. “We are making progress. We have more progress to make, but we are doing really well thus far.”

The department is working on that through a number of measures, like putting clinics in "opportunity zipcodes" and churches, and reaching out to provide access to specific New American communities, like the Somali population in Columbus.

Roberts says those efforts give her hope, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

“Time will tell what lessons we learn from this pandemic and how we move forward as a community to undo some of the wrongs that have been done to many in our community for hundreds of years," Roberts says.

What questions do you have about COVID-19 and Ohio's Response? Ask below and WOSU may answer as part of our series A Year Of COVID.


Clare Roth was former All Things Considered Host for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU in February of 2017. After attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she returned to her native Iowa as a producer for Iowa Public Radio.